A thought about the media industry’s antipiracy efforts, seen in retrospect back to the beginnings of the digital age. In the NYT today, the question comes up as to whether consumers would pay to watch more movies in digital players if more movies were priced reasonably and the restrictions on viewing were permissive. This is the usual spectrum of debate: between media industry watchdogs who think this is about the culture of theft and those who think it’s about pseudo-monopolies defending lazy, entitled revenue models in which they sold a copy of their product four or five times to the same consumers in different formats and circumstances.
Ruth Vitale, the anti-piracy executive covered in the article, suggested that the falling production of movies is a sign of the damage that piracy (in the “culture of theft” model) is inflicting on the industry.
What if the entire debate is a misfire? What if the 1990s were a final apex decade of a leisure-oriented, consumer-driven society? The last time a middle-class existed and was working to earn more time at home, more time to themselves, more time to consume culture? The last time there was enough money (fueled by debt) to support the mass consumption of leisure? What if piracy is the canary in the coal mine for the growth of income inequity and the collapse of white-collar labor? What if no one has the time to really consume more than a small fraction of even the diminished current output of the media industries, because they’re working longer hours just to keep from getting fired or even just to make ends barely meet? What if no one has the money, because of flat salaries and debt loads?
At that point, debating piracy per se is sort of like getting caught up in managing the ecological future of polar bears without noticing that you’re dealing with a very small part of a very big story. More importantly, it’s not just victims of income inequality that need to defend themselves against the new gilded age: if mass-consumer corporations want to have a future, they had better throw in with a broad “middling class” while there’s still time.